Everything, all the time

Looking into a future where every lightbulb will have an IP address, James De Vile examines what the internet of things means for businesses – and whether big data can keep up

Picture a suspension bridge built from hundreds of separate sections of concrete, cables, girders and bolts, each relying on one another to form a single, cohesive structure. Currently this requires constant human inspection to ensure that each of these components is in good condition.

Now imagine that each of these parts is connected to the internet and is set to constantly report its status via a number of miniature sensors, monitoring whether it is under stress. Should the bridge become damaged, the parts requiring repair would instantly report their failure, enabling targeted investigation and repairs.

This is just one application of the internet of things (IoT), the process of connecting the previously unconnected through smart, miniaturised technology. Long-standing examples, such as fridges that automatically order more milk, or plants that tweet when they need watering, play to our imaginations yet are limited to their intended purpose.

The IoT is generating huge volumes of data, and big data is certainly tracking it, but in terms of actually capturing value, there are gaps that need to be filled

These ideas have been around for a while, but it is only through the advent of big data and the underlying technologies designed to cope with the huge volume of information created by connected devices that the IoT is becoming a reality.

As such, the IoT’s scope is now envisioned to be something far greater than fridges and plants: more than 99 per cent of objects are unconnected to the internet, or to one another. It is the eventual aim of the IoT that almost everything will be connected and able to inter-communicate (known as M2M or ‘machine-to-machine’) without the need for human interaction.

It’s this enormous scope – everything – that has led global IT provider Cisco to expand the IoT into the wider-reaching ‘internet of everything’. According to Cisco, there will be 50 billion internet-connected things in the world by 2020, and 500 billion by 2030.

“The internet of everything will create value by lowering costs, improving employee productivity, generating new revenue and enhancing citizen benefits,” said Rabih Dabboussi, General Manager of Cisco UAE. “Worldwide, we predict there is a US$19tn opportunity by 2020 for the public (US$4.6tn) and private (US$14.4tn) sectors.”

But while the IoT may have been kick-started by big data, it also may be stalled by it. Management consulting firm Deloitte aptly compared the problem to the ‘eyes bigger than your stomach’ syndrome: the IoT is generating huge volumes of data, and big data is certainly tracking it, but in terms of actually capturing value, there are gaps that need to be filled.

Plantui soil-free indoor hydroponic plants
Finnish company Plantui sells soil-free indoor hydroponic plants – the internet of things would enable lighting and water to be controlled remotely

There have, however, been notable successes for businesses. In industries such as healthcare, ‘connected’ medication using Radio Frequency Identification technology (RFID) is already ensuring that a hospital’s stores are automatically replenished when supplies run low. The expansion of the IoT will see such technology become commonplace in every home, minimising patient error (such as overdose) for those with conditions requiring self medication.

In the private sector, key benefits include quicker innovation and, most importantly, big-data-driven optimisation. An ‘intelligent’ supply chain, for example, could use hundreds of sensors to monitor itself through each step of an assembly line. Through this, bottlenecks caused by slow processes or supply issues could be automatically identified and adjusted. Over time, this organic optimisation would result in major reductions in waste, energy costs and human intervention.

A number of German car-makers, including BMW, Daimler and Opel, are already implementing RFID tags along production chains in dealerships and repair workshops to enable real-time information regarding the location of parts, their production status and stock level. Opel recently won the 2015 VDA Logistics Award for its intelligent supply-chain system, designed to optimise its value chain and production programme.

Of course, businesses eager to reap the benefits need to consider their security capabilities before jumping in. Dr Joseph Reger, Global CTO of Fujitsu, extends the suspension-bridge analogy to something we all have in our homes: the lightbulb. Lightbulbs already exist that have their own IP address – the numeric code used to connect devices to one another and to the internet. Such devices may offer substantial energy savings, but security challenges need to be considered.

“If there’s a vulnerability, these devices can be reprogrammed very easily, very quickly,” explains Reger. “These lightbulbs could then be used as an army for denial-of-service attacks [the likes of which took Sony’s PlayStation network offline for 23 days in 2011].”

“As the IoT evolves, there will be ‘accidents’ of potentially great magnitude,” agrees Rabih Dabboussi. “Clear and consistent privacy regulatory frameworks would help companies meet and exceed privacy requirements, no matter where their offerings are being deployed, encouraging innovative product development and use of data. Designing security into products will help to prevent many of these issues.”

Agriculture drones
Agriculture drones can increase yields and reduce crop damage

Experts and leading organisations have expressed that security concerns in the IoT represent a key barrier to adoption and it is clear that regulation and standardisation needs to take precedence in these early stages on the road to IoT saturation. In the UK, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau said that 70 per cent of frauds recorded last year included a cyber element compared with 40 per cent five years ago. The European Commission is just one of the bodies that has started to address these concerns, releasing recommendations that span the right of deletion, right to be forgotten, data portability, privacy and data-protection principles.

Yet while it is important to consider the dangers of ‘good’ technology being used for ‘bad’, there are important examples of the opposite effect. Drones – which are often seen as a military or privacy concern – will play an integral role in the IoT, tracking unconnected people or objects, analysing hard-to-reach or dangerous locations or alerting us to changes in environmental conditions.

Network provider Etisalat recently received a UAE Drones for Good award for its development of a drone designed to instantly extend mobile network coverage or capacity in times of emergency and deliver high-grade medical diagnostic tools to emergency sites. The UAE is also conscious of security issues around the machines. The country’s aviation authority recently announced forthcoming rules that would stop their use near airports and populated communities, as well as strict directives on who is allowed to use cameras and telecommunication devices.

This celebration of technology used for good ultimately reflects the bright future of the IoT. The companies that succeed will be those able to optimise their business processes while putting security and human benefit at the forefront of their plans.